Last winter, when a gardener named Wilbur was perusing his garden catalogs, trying to decide which varieties to order, he wondered about the habit of a new zucchini offered by Burpee Seeds. The catalog's description didn't tell him everything he needed to know.
So Wilbur fired up his computer and logged on to a conference that was being held that Wednesday evening in January.
"My wife always complains that I pick zucchini too big," he typed, "and she has to throw them away. How big is the max size of the new Roly-Poly?"
"Wilbur," came the answer from Chela Kleiber of Burpee, "pick Roly-Poly about the size of an apple."
"If I left it in the garden (forgot to pick it), would it get as big as a watermelon?"
"I don't think so," Kleiber responded, "but I don't think anyone has tried it!"
As the evening stretched on, Shep Ogden of Cook's Garden catalog in Londonderry, Vt., and a panel of other gardening experts consulted on line with Wilbur and more than two dozen other computer owners, making gardening history of sorts.
They were participating in the first real-time, or live, computer conference with representatives of mail-order seed and plant nurseries. On the panel with Kleiber and Ogden was Rose Marie Nichols McGee, of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Ore. For more than two hours, questions and answers flew across the nation as gardeners leafed through catalogs at their desks and solicited product information and advice from the panel.
That conference in early 1993 was the first outward manifestation of what industry insiders view as a forthcoming change that could rival the revolution started by the Shakers 100 years ago.
The Shakers changed the way seeds were marketed by hand-counting seeds and sealing them in small envelopes. Today some industry observers see the possibility of computers taking over the marketing of plants and seeds.
"The garden catalog is really two things," said Nona Wolfram-Koivula, of the National Garden Bureau. "It is educational as well as a means of selling seeds. The educational aspect of it can be electronic, even when the sales aspect remains a catalog."
Computer gardening forums are being praised as sources of education, information and expertise. With this in mind, the National Gardening Association two years ago opened the Garden Forum on CompuServe, one of the country's leading computer bulletin-board services.
The association hired a full-time systems operator to keep the Garden Forum up to date and offer special programs. Since then, more than 15,000 gardeners have subscribed on CompuServe. There are additional forums on other bulletin boards, including Prodigy, America Online, Delphi, Genie and the Well.
Still, the garden industry itself, including the widespread catalog segment, with more than a thousand companies nationwide, is lagging behind other similar markets that have leaped enthusiastically onto the electronic bandwagon.
Gardening "is to go out in the yard and get down on your hands and knees and hold the plant and touch the dirt," said Ogden, of Cook's garden catalog. "As much as (the Garden Forum) allows you to tap into a greater body of knowledge, gardening is really about the opposite of technology."
Still, as the number of home computers with modems increases (12-million nationwide now) and begins overlapping into the gardening population (72-million households, according to NGA statistics), the opportunities for electronic marketing of garden products has to expand.
"Imagine a design program that contains visual images of all the plants in a catalog," said Steve Frowine, horticultural vice president of White Flower Farms catalog in Litchfield, Conn. "The gardener puts in the parameters of the garden he wants to plant, let's say a shade garden, in Zone 6, soil types, and so on.
"He clicks and gets seven different examples of a shade garden. He picks one, starts with the one size and begins spreading it to fit his space. He's got a list of things that work well; he pulls out what he doesn't like, clicks onto a new variety. He drops it in, and then he asks to view the garden from a 45-degree angle, or how it's going to look in the spring, summer and fall; how it's going to look in three years. He sees if he likes the colors, the height, if the plant texture works well at each season.
"When he's satisfied with it, he clicks to the modem icon. The computer logs all the plant names in order, their prices, asks for his credit-card number and immediately enters it as an order. That's what we can look for, and I predict we'll be seeing it by the end of this year."
Frowine sees the electronic revolution arriving sooner than most other industry analysts.
Said Barbara J. Barton, author of Gardening by Mail (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95): "I can easily imagine a lot of data being made available (on bulletin boards) within five years."